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Everything’s Bigger in Texas: Judicial Vacancy Edition

There are currently 10 federal judgeships in Texas that have been vacant for an average of nearly two years resulting in a backlog of more than 12,000 cases.  A report by the Center for American Progress notes that 17 vacancies had been filled at this point during Republican President George W. Bush’s second term, in contrast with the six judges that have been appointed to U.S. District Court vacancies in Texas under President Obama.

Phillip Martin of the Austin-based Progress Texas stated that “Senators Cornyn and Cruz have allowed politics to cloud important needs to have judges to fill our federal courts.”  The Associated Press reports that upcoming retirements could lead to as many as 13 Texas-based federal judgeships vacancies by March 2015.

Senators Cornyn and Cruz have stated that Obama hasn’t nominated candidates to fill these vacancies quickly enough. This is despite the fact that the White House does not push nominees without support from home-state senators and waits for their suggestions, as mandated by Senate tradition.

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Kansas Attorney General told House Budget Committee members it would not be a good idea to reject the Kansas Supreme Court order to correct constitutional flaws in state funding of K-12 public education by July 1.
  • A Louisiana Senate bill to repeal the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age is expected to easily pass today, but will face much tougher road in the House, reports Gavel to Gavel, the blog of the National Center for State Courts.
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Roy Schotland

The fair courts world has lost one of its founding spirits.  Roy Schotland, Professor Emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center, passed away on January 26, surrounded by his family.  Long before there was a fair courts field, he was sounding the alarm about how judicial elections were becoming risks to our justice system and our democracy.

Roy was one of those polymaths that the law attracts.  He clerked for Justice William Brennan, practiced law, and taught at Virginia and Penn before coming to Georgetown.  He wrote treatises and other works on administrative law, securities, pensions, election law and campaign finance, and he advised the Federal Reserve Board, the American Bar Association, the National Center for State Courts and numerous state chief justices.  A decade ago, when Justice at Stake decided to give an award for scholarship in the field of fair courts, it appointed a committee of scholars that took very little time in selecting the obvious choice.  We had a nice ceremony to honor Roy at the Harvard Law School, where we were welcomed by Dean Elena Kagan.

Roy was one of life’s connoisseurs, delighting in good stories and interesting language, in food and museums and the giddiness of grandparenting.   He was a careful observer and a tough questioner. And he was something of an old-school blogger, sending out missives Read more


Gavel Grab Will Return Jan. 2

The Gavel Grab staff is taking a break and will return Jan. 2. Happy Holidays to our readers.

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these and other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The word “selfie” has officially entered the lexicon of the Michigan Supreme Court, according to a report in the Associated Press.  Chief Justice Robert Young, Jr., used the popular term recently in a court proceeding.  A selfie is, of course, a photo taken of oneself while holding the camera, typically a smartphone.
  • In California, an initiative has been proposed that would shed light on donors to nonprofit groups trying to influence elections and legislation.  According to the LA Times, the “Nonprofit Donor Full Disclosure Act of 2014” was submitted this week to the state attorney general’s office.  The preamble reads, “The intent of the Act is to strengthen the campaign finance disclosure laws.”
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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal has appointed two new judges to the Chattahoochee Circuit Superior Court, including the first female judge since 2004.  The Ledger-Enquirer noted that retired Judge John Allen of Georgia had recently called for greater consideration for diversity on the bench after serving two decades on the Superior Court as the only black judge in a circuit with no female judges.
  • The Tennessee Judiciary Museum is celebrating its first anniversary with a new website and exhibits on display. reported that the current exhibit, “Tales of the Tennessee Judiciary,” offers information about eight historic cases including the 1955 reapportionment of voting districts.
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Should Politics Dictate Judicial Retirement?

In an editorial piece for  the Constitution Daily , the blog of the National Constitution Center, veteran legal analyst Lyle Denniston examines a quote from Washington Post columnist Jonathan Bernstein.  Bernstein had urged current Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer to retire in order to protect their legacies.

Denniston notes that resigning  from a seat  on the highest court in the land can be a very difficult decision. There is often pressure from media and political figures to retire when a particular party is in power. The editorial points out that this can often contribute to the seemingly partisan nature of the judgeships. “In a political era in which Americans are so deeply polarized about their public policy goals, it is easy to overlay that polarization on the courts,” Denniston writes.

Denniston goes on to quote Alexander Hamilton from Federalist Paper No. 78., stating that his enduring words embody the idea that courtrooms should be free from bias and political pressure

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Gavel Grab Will Return Dec. 2

The Gavel Grab staff is taking a break and will return Dec. 2. Happy holiday to our readers.

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The Washington Post ran a piece yesterday on the Chamber of Commerce’s recent attention to state courts.   Kate Comerford Todd, vice president of the Chamber’s litigation arm, the National Chamber Litigation Center discusses the benefits of state courts having larger implications.  “Other parties in related cases watch what happened, and so do some courts.”
  • Deaf advocates are creating courtroom guidelines after a judge in Maryland banned spectators from using ASL during trial proceedings.  The Washington Post reports that the judge’s order was intended to prevent inadvertent or improper communication between spectators and witnesses on the stand.
  • South Carolina’s Chief Justice, Jean Toal, has acknowledged the courts struggle with lagging decisions.  A school funding lawsuit that has been pending for two decades, including five years at the state’s highest court, was noted was noted by The State.  Lagging cases is expected to be a major issue in Toal’s re-election to her position.
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87 Percent Say Campaign Cash Skews Rulings

A West Virginia Public Broadcasting report highlighted the findings of a recent poll sponsored by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, in which a full 87% of voters said campaign donations to judges influence court decisions.  The same number expressed a belief that independent expenditures on TV ads and other election materials for or against a judge have the same effect.  West Virginia has sought to curb this influence by instituting public financing for judicial elections. “The really good thing about public financing is it lets the judges spend time with voters instead of donors,” Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, told reporter Ashton Marra, “and it can reduce the fear of the public that justice might be for sale.”

The poll follows the release of  The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12,  in which Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center expose the massive influx of cash into judicial elections over the last two years.  Former Indiana Chief Justice and Justice at Stake Board of Directors member Randall Shepard spoke on this issue at a conference highlighting the release of the report titled Nuvo reported.

Justice Shepard said, “Money finds whatever crevice it can, and flows into groups which are less transparent and less accountable.” He argued for limits on the role special interest groups play in judicial elections, but conceded that changing the process would be an uphill fight.

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